When Neil Simon rewrote his 1965 classic “The Odd Couple” about mismatched roommates for a female cast (Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno), he no doubt thought that the result would be the same. But that slob/neatnik battle doesn’t translate quite that easily.
“The Odd Couple” works because two divorced/separated men temporarily rooming together and slipping into the bickering habits of an old married couple is inherently funnier than two women in the same situation. Men are less domesticated and more cautious about showing feelings – at least in the era Neil Simon was writing – while women are more comfortable with each other and not afraid to hug or hold hands for fear of being thought really odd.
But that said, Neil Simon is still Neil Simon, and his patented rapid-fire one-liners and brilliantly silly dialogue is still often hilarious with every third line delivering a belly laugh. And the Forum Theatre’s revival of the 1985 rewrite directed by Kathryn Page Hauptman will tickle your funny bone despite some nagging technical problems with partly blocked sight lines for the set and costumes that don’t quite establish one character.
And that’s because veteran actresses Karla Burns and Gina Austin are such a delightful comic match. Burns, a Broadway veteran and award-winner in London, plays Olive – nee Oscar – the slobby half of the couple who sees life as more than a pristine house worthy of Architectural Digest. Austin, a longtime drama teacher at West High, plays Florence – nee Felix – the obsessive perfectionist who is driven to micromanage, coordinate and rearrange every mundane detail to keep the world from falling apart on her watch.
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Burns, who can mug and clown around with the best, this time keeps a deadpan face, using her eyes like laser beams to convey her growing exasperation with Florence’s flitting and fussing around. Burns does a slow burn worthy of a Walter Matthau (who won a Tony as Oscar in the Broadway original), and uses her rich voice as a measured, sarcastic bludgeon. My only nitpick is that she never looks like a slob. Rather than mismatched or rumpled clothing, she is a touch too stylish, coordinated and put together. And her apartment is cluttered rather than genuinely messy despite artfully dropped shopping bags.
Austin, recently splendid as the curmudgeonly, demanding title character of “Driving Miss Daisy,” plays sort of a slapstick version of that persona here, insisting that “I’m not a complainer” all the while she is complaining. Austin plays Florence as a passive-aggressive drama queen who postures and provokes, but then pouts when she’s called on it.
Burns and Austin one-up each other in an escalating comic battle that includes a few poignant moments when they inevitably go too far and realize what they’ve done.
Ray Wills and Huron Breaux play the worldly, debonair, hand-kissing Spanish Costazuela brothers (remember the ditzy British Pigeon sisters of the original?) who live upstairs and provide some romantic by-play. Wills, particularly, is hilarious with his outrageous accent (shades of Monty Python) and heel-clicking Old World chivalric posturing. Breaux is his more straight-laced foil, making them sort of their own “Odd Couple” within this distaff “Odd Couple.”
Deb Campbell, with a consistently amusing “Noo Yawk” accent, steals bits of scenes as one of the girls who meet in Olive’s apartment for a weekly match of Trivial Pursuit.